Digging the new-old roots

Pub date January 30, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Yodeling is African? Well, one could certainly trace the practice from the Ituri of the Congolese rainforest, described as the first people by ancient Egyptian chroniclers, to country icons such as Jimmie Rodgers — who, incidentally, recorded with Louis Armstrong — but also to less-explored sonic shores like James Brown’s iconic scream or Marvin Gaye’s version limning his legendary 1970s LP cycle. However, if this is too far a leap for you to make, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ appearance as part of the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival might be a bit of a head-scratcher. The Chocolate Drops — Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson — don’t straight-up yodel, but their harmonies and banjo-and-fiddle-anchored instrumentation reach back not only to the halcyon days when Africans in America entertained themselves at fiddle-scored frolics but all the way to the griot tradition of Western Sudan.

To be sure, the Durham, NC, band — yes, their moniker invokes the Tennessee Chocolate Drops and Mississippi Mud Steppers of yore — is neither superurban nor contemporary. Its members play strictly prewar African American string-band repertoire, as evidenced by their current release, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker): see "Tom Dula," "Ol’ Corn Likker," and yep, the ever-contested "Dixie." Still, being young, hip children of the postdesegregation era, the trio have a musical expression and an aesthetic that are informed as much by the hybridity and daring of the 1960s and ’70s golden age of black rock and psychedelic soul as by classic country and western and ethnographic studies of the genre’s African antecedents. If only by pursuing their dusky twang muse in reaction to the deplorable, moribund state of today’s urban music, these Drops live in a world that differs from that of their 1920s and ’30s predecessors chiefly in that (a) the wages of desegregation include black audiences’ will to eschew arts reminiscent of their past of bondage and hard times and (b) the dominant society’s prevailing and most popular stereotype of blackness has an inner-city face — "Makes me wanna holler!" — that rejects any other ways of being or seeing.

Some of my colleagues — and doubtless myself — have been obliquely accused of holding up emerging progressive black artists on the rock scene and satellites such as the Drops as examples of uplift and enshrining their hard work beneath a welter of sociological wankery stretching back into the prewar mists of time to Talented Tenth big daddy W.E.B. DuBois. Yet if some of that giddiness at Afro-futurist striving is sloughed off, there remains the central, inescapable fact that in much of the West, rock is still seen as "black music played by white people" and country is this nation’s most racially separatist genre.

Much was made this past fall of Rissi Palmer’s Billboard debut with "Country Girl," since it was the first such charting by an African American in the two decades after the long-forgotten Dona Mason’s fleeting dent with "Green Eyes (Cryin’ Those Blue Tears)." Critics worked overtime to display color-blind bona fides, bending themselves over backward in the attempt to downplay the role of race in Palmer’s ascent and note the singularity of the event while also sugarcoating their general consensus on the disc’s mediocrity. Personally, I wish Sister Palmer much success and far better material plus production, but what struck me most was the cover of her eponymous release. Only a sliver of Palmer’s brown face is to be seen, the overabundance of russet curls perhaps meant as commerce-inducing allusion to the Great Reba. It’s certainly baffling that 42 years since Charley Pride’s debut was released sans artist photo, one still has to mince around difference.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have more to overcome, seeing as they play an earlier, unplugged form of twang that’s light-years away from not only the patriotic-pandering, reheated Southern boogie and suburban soccer mom–and–sippy cup sentiments of mainstream Nashville but also the ambitious incursions of Palmer and Cowboy Troy and the recent bluegrass syncretism of Merle Haggard and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Now sharing management with fellow Carolinians the Avett Brothers, the Drops are garnering just acclaim from roots-friendly media and making fruitful incursions into important arenas, like the annual MerleFest. Yes, the trio are benefiting from both the breakdown of a music industry in turmoil that’s reliant on streams from independents and a more reflective moment among media and listeners who have come of age in an era of omnivorous multiculturalism. And let us not discount the Drops’ sheer talent and charm.

Nevertheless, as a mere Negress observer, this critic finds her attention inevitably straying to the lack of intraracial institutions to advocate for artists in the Drops’ vein — in addition to an infrastructure for developing and sustaining nonwhite audiences’ taste for the music. Since, y’know, they’re isolated from the rural. (Must Dona be retroactively screwed and chopped?) It would be nice to see the band embraced as part of a continuum by progressive audiences, just as there’s some energy around soul-folk as a viable trend. Will the Drops’ version of young fogydom garner as much breathless critical attention and community building as the so-called freak-folk scene does? Of course, cross-cultural exchange is possible: current Nashvegas superstar and Troy’s boy "Big" Kenny Alphin traveled to Sudan last October to do his bit for the struggle and got the country press to cover his contribution. Now if only the media would turn its attention to the best acolytes of medieval traditions created by Africans not abject but divinely inspired.


Feb. 7, 8 p.m., $18.50–<\d>$19.50

Freight and Salvage Coffee House

1111 Addison, Berk.

(510) 548-1761



The San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival runs Feb. 1–9. For information on other shows and events, go to www.sfbluegrass.org.